It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life is many things – fast-paced, funny, engaging, and witty, to name just a few. The one thing it is not is It’s A Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra classic, as adapted by director Scott Palmer, is not so much the story as it is the vehicle through which the story is told.
A group of veteran radio actors have gathered for the annual Christmas broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life. In a curious parallel to the life of IAWL star George Bailey, from the beginning nothing goes right. A fanzine has reported erroneously that star Petunia Pennywhistle loves rum-soaked fruitcake, and station WBNB is inundated with fruitcakes sent by her adoring public. Petunia dumps the fruitcakes on production assistant Pete Paulson, who absent-mindedly nibbles his way to total inebriation just before airtime. Two key players are missing – the other female lead (who has ditched them to play the Ghost of Christmas Future in another production), and the Foley artist/special effects guru. The drunken Paulson is ordered to replace the Foley artist, a role in which he would have been inept even if he were sober. Player Winston Whiteside arrives with his bimbo du jour, lingerie saleslady Lana North-Berkshire, for whom he has rewritten parts of the show. The tension is heightened by jealousy between handsome lead Carlson Calaway and Francis Fishburne, who harbors a powerful yen for the fair Ms. Pennywhistle. Somehow the cast manages to lurch through the radio script – it’s a true Christmas miracle! Along the way, the audience is treated to some of the best comedy moments of the season.
The strong six-person cast fills a multitude of roles with a combination of sharp delivery and broad physical comedy. Despite the chaotic set-up, the characters never step over the line from slapstick to unrestrained farce. Ian Armstrong (Calaway) is hilarious as he slips from his character’s haughty demeanor to a truly boffo Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Branden McFarland (Pete Paulson) makes the most of the oft-thankless role of male ingénue, despite being mute throughout Act I. Somehow he manages to constantly draw the audience’s attention by being virtually (and sometimes literally) invisible to the rest of the cast. His impassioned speech in Act II pulls the radio show together; a moment that could have been disgustingly maudlin is saved when he concludes his speech with a dead-drunk pratfall.
Jessica Geffen simply sparkles in her portrayal of Lana North-Berkshire. She is a crass, brassy, bawdy innocent, dazzled by the lure of show biz and 100% committed as she hurls herself into one absurd characterization after another. Scott Palmer has created a very funny role, and Geffen lets none of the comic potential slip away.
It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life is too good a show to be limited to one run at the Venetian. We hope that Scott Palmer will share his script and staging with other theater companies so that a wider audience can join in the fun.
Bag&Baggage’s production of It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life is playing at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, Hillsboro through Monday, December 23d.